The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: An Interview with Yongnian Zheng
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By Yongnian Zheng

The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: An Interview with Yongnian Zheng

Sep. 08, 2017  |     |  0 comments


On September 3, 2017, North Korea tested a powerful nuclear bomb. A 6.3-magnitude earthquake registered at North Korea’s Punggye-ri testing site, according to the US Geological Survey. That indicated Pyongyang detonated a hydrogen bomb with a 100-kiloton yield, according to experts. IPP Review interviewed Professor Yongnian Zheng, Director of East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, to address questions related to this incident.


IPP Review: This is North Korea’s sixth nuclear bomb test. How should we look at it?


Yongnian Zheng: When big countries like the US behave roguishly, it will be very difficult to keep small states like North Korea in check. This is the reality of today’s politics.


North Korea is behaving like a spoilt child. It is not that any country is encouraging North Korea to carry out its antics, but when other countries cannot arrive at a consensus on how to rein in North Korea, the situation slowly descends into an anarchic state.


The nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula has been around for many years. North Korea is smart enough to see and make use of the deep rifts between the big countries, especially between the US and China, to carve out a space for itself. After every test or launch, the one who wins is North Korea and those who lose are always the big powers. It is because the big powers, while laying blame on each other, cannot agree on the actions to take against North Korea. In the end, they can only hopelessly wait for the next, bigger crisis to happen.


From the viewpoint of North Korea’s leaders, there is every reason to develop nuclear weapons and no reason not to develop nuclear weapons. The experience of Libya has impressed upon the North Korean leadership the importance of having nuclear weapons. The international situation has provided a chance for Kim Jong-un to become “smart” and “powerful”.


IPP Review: As reported by Reuters, nuclear experts at Seoul National University said that the most recent test showed that North Korea should be considered a “nuclear weapons state”. However, other countries such as the US and China do not recognize North Korea as a “nuclear weapons state”. What is your take?


Yongnian Zheng: Although many people doubt North Korea’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, the efforts it has put into developing nuclear weapons is not to be sneered at. Kim Jong-un’s purpose for developing nuclear weapons is to safeguard his regime. Although North Korea has failed numerous times over the past decades to develop nuclear weapons, these failures indicate how close it has gotten to successfully developing a nuclear bomb.


The Americans are more concerned about North Korea’s missile technology rather than its nuclear technology, as what they are really worried about is whether North Korea has the capability to send a nuclear bomb to the US mainland. That is why the US has become nervous lately, because North Korea’s missile technology is getting better.


It does not matter at all to North Korea whether the international community does or does not recognize it as a “nuclear weapons state”. There is no international community in the eyes of North Korea. Even if there is an international community, it is ineffective in restraining North Korea’s actions.


Personally, I feel that sooner or later the international community will recognize North Korea as a “nuclear weapons state”. Or the simple possession of nuclear weapons will be North Korea’s ticket to becoming an important member of the international community.


IPP Review: China is resolutely against North Korea having nuclear weapons. It is also an active member of the Six-Party Talks. But it seems that there are not much results to go by.


Yongnian Zheng: There are many reasons for the failure of the Six-Party Talks; one of them being the deep distrust between the US and North Korea. However, there is another factor that has been largely overlooked, that is, North Korea is clearly different from the other five countries when it comes to solving international problems. The other five countries hold a simplistic view that North Korea will be like them when solving international problems, but it is not like them.


The mistake that most countries make is to treat North Korea like it is one of us. Did anyone try to find out how North Koreans actually view themselves? The North Korean people and their leaders are entrenched in the “religion” of nuclear weapons and missiles. No matter what kind of external pressure is applied on them, it will not make them abandon this worship.


On the other hand, the other countries in the Six-Party Talks have their own calculations. So long as every country is thinking about their own “national interests”, there will be no consensus.


IPP Review: US President Donald Trump stated that he might consider unilateral actions against North Korea. However, the US is bogged down by huge debt. Can the US afford a war with North Korea? What is the position and ultimate aim of the US in handling the North Korean nuclear crisis?


Yongnian Zheng: Even if there is no intention of war initially, the current situation on the Korean peninsula is that with increasing war-mongering and posturing on all sides, the trigger may be pulled in a miscalculation. Although North Korea’s statements are aggressive, their real aim is not to attack the US—it is actually self-defense, at least at this point in time. The ball is in the US’ court now. It all depends on how they perceive the North Koreans.


If we assess whether the US will go to war solely on financial basis, we will be making a big mistake. The US paid dearly for the Middle East War because no other countries picked up the tab. It will be different in East Asia. If the US goes to war, countries such as the US allies will pick up the tab. Also, from a historical point of view, a war is an effective means to jumpstart a country’s economic revival.


More importantly, we know that the military capabilities of the US, Japan, and South Korea are over and above what is needed—as can be observed from the THAAD deployment and the large-scale military exercises between these countries. This over-capacity also serves the purpose of containing China.


After the Cold War, the US has been using a two-pronged approach to deal with China: cooperation and containment. This allows the US to maintain its hegemony in the maritime realm. This is also the way the US is handling the North Korean nuclear crisis. To me, while the US can benefit from the resolution of the crisis, and it can also benefit from its delayed resolution.


If the US resolves the crisis, it will mean that the US has defeated its enemy and that the US has secured its leadership position in the nuclear non-proliferation system. If the US delays the resolution of the crisis, it will not just provide an irrefutable justification for the US to continue its operations in the West Pacific, it will also be a cheap and useful way for the US to contain China. Although North Korea is improving its missile technology, the US is also getting better at intercepting North Korea’s nuclear missiles.


Therefore, the ultimate aim of the US in handling the North Korean crisis is to balance China. The THAAD deployment in South Korea is even more important than solving the North Korean crisis. Because the US has seized the strategic initiative, it can potentially benefit from both sides. If China do not seize the initiative now, the resolution or delayed resolution of the North Korean crisis will become China’s biggest headache in terms of geopolitics.


Specifically, if the crisis is resolved by the US, it will mean that the reconciliation of the US and North Korea, or the reunification of North and South Korea, will proceed in a manner beneficial to the US. If the resolution of the crisis is put off, the space for China to handle the North Korean crisis will become smaller; China-North Korean relations will worsen; and US-South Korean and US-Japanese relations will become cozier. This will only serve to strengthen America’s and weaken China’s position.


IPP Review: What about Japan’s position in the North Korean crisis? Will they seek more pro-active measures for their own safety?


Yongnian Zheng: In the short term, Japan also benefits from the escalation of the North Korean crisis. Several generations of Japanese leaders have been trying to reinstate Japan’s military self-rule, and the North Korean crisis is the perfect excuse for Japan to expand its military capability. Japan is also using the crisis to widen its political influence, so as to make Japan a “normal country” again.



There are many possibilities to resolve the crisis. China could do it alone, or it could engage Russia’s help. There is even the possibility that the US and China could solve the crisis in a G2 model.



Whatever problems Japan may have internally or externally in the pursuit of becoming a “normal country”, they have been neutralized by external factors, especially the North Korean crisis. Furthermore, Japan is in actual fact a “nuclear weapons state”, and with a high level of expertise too. Thus, overall, there are more positive than negative impacts for Japan with regard to the North Korean crisis.


IPP Review: What about China? What is its ultimate aim in the North Korean crisis?


Yongnian Zheng: China is facing a dilemma with the North Korean crisis. There are a few reasons:


First, China is concerned about the stability of the Korean peninsula. If North Korea descends into chaos, it will affect the whole of East Asia. As the largest country in East Asia, China naturally does not want to see North Korea in a mess. China would inevitably be included in the disarray and it will definitely affect China’s future.


Second, if chaos erupts in the Korean peninsula, China will be affected directly, and will have to deal with a huge wave of refugees.


Third, China is worried about the uncertain future of a reunited Korean peninsula. If North Korea disintegrates and the peninsula is reunified, China will have to face a powerful Korea. Historically, South Korea has had territorial disputes with China. However, these disputes had been put aside in the wake of the North-South divide. If Korea is reunified, it will certainly bring up these territorial issues with China. If East Asia becomes a region with three powers, namely China, Japan and Korea, and with the US being an external factor, the strategic outlook for China will become very uncertain.


All these factors have informed China’s actions so far.


First, China will not do anything that will affect the stability of the Korean peninsula. Therefore, even if China is unhappy with North Korea’s nuclear tests and decides to sanction the country, the actions will be limited and will not lead to regime change in North Korea.


Second, China will exercise its rights at the UN Security Council and veto any resolution that will affect the stability of the Korean peninsula.


Third, with regard to possible attacks on North Korea by the US, China is taking a strategically ambiguous stand. It neither agrees nor opposes such attacks, and this approach has resulted with the US having difficulty taking definitive actions against North Korea.


To get out of the dilemma, China should change its stance with regard to North Korea, that is, to stop thinking that North Korea is America’s problem and start thinking that it is China’s problem. Then, China will have a new strategy to deal with the issue.


IPP Review: The US seems to have made good use of China’s predicament and has laid the blame of North Korea having the ability to develop nuclear weapons on China. How should we view the situation?


Yongnian Zheng: First, the crux of the problem is that it is China, not the US, which will have to deal with the consequences of North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea is now recklessly testing nuclear bombs near China’s border. This poses a grave threat to the safety of Chinese citizens. On top of this, South Korea’s THAAD deployment has seriously undermined the security of almost half of China.


South Korea is unable to deal with the security crisis brought about by North Korea’s nuclear program on its own. Even if it loses millions of dollars in terms of its economy, and diplomatically with regard to China, South Korea’s only choice is to cooperate closely with the US to secure its own national security. It will be very difficult to compel South Korea to change its THAAD deployment decision, whether internally or externally.


Second, China, by turning a blind eye to North Korea’s nuclear program, has brought about the biggest threat to itself and its future generations. In the long term, South Korea will follow North Korea’s path of developing nuclear weapons. Japan will naturally become a nuclear weapons state. Russia, India, and Pakistan already possess nuclear weapons. China is surrounded by countries which have nuclear weapons.


At the moment, we believe that these countries, including North Korea, are not targeting China with their nuclear weapons. But we cannot predict the future. Traditionally, big countries do not allow small states around their peripheries to develop nuclear weapons. China is the only exception.


Third, why is China shirking its responsibilities as a major power? China is a rising power and is the second-largest economy and largest trading nation in the world. The international community expects China to shoulder more responsibilities regionally and internationally, and China should step up to the plate.


IPP Review: Could China work with Russia to solve the North Korean crisis?


Yongnian Zheng: That is not possible. Russia has a different set of interests. While the nuclear threat to China is real, it is only a marginal threat to Russia’s safety. With respect to the North Korean crisis, Russia is by and large on the same page as the US. They are just putting off the resolution of the crisis.


IPP Review: The North Korean issue is a test for China’s rise as a major power. What kind of actions should China take to achieve positive results?


Yongnian Zheng: There are many possibilities for the resolution of the crisis. China could do it alone, or it could engage Russia’s help. There is even the possibility that the US and China could solve the crisis following the G2 model. The best possible way is still for China to seize the initiative wholly. This does not mean that China should resolve the crisis on its own, but that China should be the leader in negotiating for a resolution. Should such negotiations fail, China should also assume the leadership in any military action taken to deter North Korea. The premise for all these possibilities is the US’ agreement with China taking the lead.


In other words, the North Korean crisis could be China’s opportunity to prove its capabilities to the world.


First, North Korea has already lost favor with the international community over its nuclear program and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. Therefore, if China takes strong military action against North Korea, it will not affect China’s image as a peaceful nation.


Second, President Trump is a businessman with no ideological baggage. China should take this opportunity to deal with the US with regard to East Asia, and re-shape the geopolitical order in East Asia.


Third, the Trump administration is more concerned with solving the Islamic State issue. To Trump, the Islamic State is a civilizational issue whereas North Korea is a strategic issue. Hence, China has more to deal with in the case of North Korea.


Currently, if a major power wants to use force on another country, it has to satisfy international principles and frameworks. Besides Articles 2 and 51 of the UN Charter, other unwritten rules include colonial liberation, intervention in civil war, upholding human rights, etc.


The IAEA and the UN have reached a consensus about North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions against North Korea. Once there is some form of international acceptance about the use of force against North Korea for the purpose of destroying WMDs, this principle will be invoked for the first time in human history. If China takes the lead in shaping this principle, it will not only help establish a major principle in international relations, China will also become a leader in the international nuclear non-proliferation system.


On the contrary, if the US, Japan and South Korea take the lead, their plan will set the precedent for future crises, with, for example, THAAD deployments being given more legality. This will be detrimental for China’s diplomacy and crisis management. It will also weaken China’s right to speak up in the future, in terms of shaping international principles and the nuclear order.


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